Does Rock ‘N’ Roll Kill Braincells?! – Lee Ranaldo

In Does Rock 'N' Roll Kill Braincells?!, we quiz a grizzled artist on their own career to see how much they can remember – and find out if the booze, loud music and/or tour sweeties has knocked the knowledge out of them. This week: former Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo.

1: You appear on The Cribs’ 2007 track ‘Be Safe’. Name three things you hate according to its lyrics.

“Let me see – parking tickets? Breakfast specials? The rich? Oh my God, I feel this is on the tip of my tongue…”

CORRECT. Among others, you could have also had: the happy, the complacent, the TV watchers, beer drinkers, satisfied ones and yourself.

“We were put together through Sonic Youth’s old A&R man. I was nervous at first, but once I could see they weren’t just thinking ‘this is fucking weird’, we had a blast. I flew to England to sing it with them on the tenth anniversary of that album ‘Men’s Needs, Women’s Needs, Whatever’. I love all three of those brothers and their Yorkshire accents – it has a melodious sound to my American ear.”

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Anything you’re currently hating?

“Besides Trump and Brexit?! (Laughs)”

2: What was the Madonna-inspired working title of  Sonic Youth’s tour documentary, ‘1991: The Year Punk Broke’?

“Was it Stick Me Magic Momma? (Laughs)”

WRONG. It was ‘Tooth or Hair’, a pun on her tour doc ‘Truth or Dare’.

“Oh wow! I’ve never heard that before. It was super-fun making that film because we were touring with all our favourite bands – Babes In Toyland, Nirvana – who we’d toured with a few times in the states before anyone knew anything about them and before even Dave Grohl had joined the band. Because Dave [Markey] was a friend of ours and filming constantly, he really did become like a fly on the wall. Of course, there was plenty of mugging for the camera, but after a while, we forgot he was there.”

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Did Madonna ever give you any feedback on Sonic Youth’s Ciccone Youth project?

“Who knows what she thought of it? She was someone we saw around in the clubs in the early days before her fame happened. When we [Sonic Youth] first came to England wearing Madonna T-shirts, people thought we were taking the piss – which we definitely were not. When we made the Ciccone Youth album, we used a picture of her on the cover and we covered a couple of her songs [‘Into the Groove’ and ‘Burnin’ Up’] so we had to run it by her record company. Word got back to us that she was cool about it and didn’t want them to raise any problems with us doing it, but we’ve never had a personal conversation or found out for sure what she thought of it.”

 

3: Which superhero is referenced in your 1993 solo album ‘Scriptures of the Golden Eternity’?

“That’s an easy one – Superman.”

CORRECT.

“When I was a kid, I had an older cousin who handed me a gigantic carboard box of comics – mostly DC early editions of Superman, Batman and the Justice League. Tragically, when I left home, my mom threw them out – because I could have put my kids through college selling them! My mom always said reading the tiny print on those comics in my bedroom at night before I went to sleep led to me having to wear glasses (Laughs).”

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4: In 2016, Sonic Youth’s Twitter account was hacked. Where did it claim you were playing a reunion gig?

“Wow! I remember this vaguely. I’m going to take a wild guess and say CBGBs?”

WRONG. It was Central Park.

“Well I half-thought it would be somewhere like the Himalayas! People who should have known better were calling us perplexed going ‘Is this true?!’. Which obviously it wasn’t – it was a hack which gave the fans a momentary heart flutter.”

“Sonic Youth thought Oasis were the biggest yobbos we’d ever met. To us, they were like country bumpkins” – Lee Ranaldo 

There’s a trend for music biopics at the moment. Would you like to see a Sonic Youth one?

“I don’t think there’s enough meat there for a biopic. There’s not enough drama or controversy. I read an interview with Kim [Gordon] recently where she was talking about developing her book, Girl In A Band, into a movie, and she said she was hoping Kirsten Stewart plays her.”

Ideally, who would you like to play you and Thurston Moore?

“If it’s me at my current age, then Al Pacino, but if it’s me in the good old days, then maybe Robert Pattinson. I’ve a soft spot for him – he’s not all vampires and cloves of garlic! For Thurston, probably Jim Carrey. (Laughs). It would have to be somebody tall. Ron Howard is too old now, but everybody thought Thurston looked like his character Opie on The Andy Griffith Show back when he was a child actor.”

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5: You co-produced Babes in Toyland’s ‘Fontanelle’. What’s the longest track on the album?

“Oh my God, the longest track?! I guess I’m not allowed to cheat and look it up? (Laughs) I’ll say ‘Bruise Violet’ – but I don’t know the answer!”

WRONG. It’s ‘Mother’ at 3 minutes 13 seconds.

“They asked me to work on this record – which was their major label debut, so it was a nail-biter. We toured with them right before that and they were a fantastic live band, and I flew to Minneapolis and we made all the demos. But by the time we started the record, their original bassist Michelle [Leon] quit and was replaced by Maureen [Herman], so the chemistry and the dynamic in the band was very different. But the same thing happened with the Babes that happened with Sonic Youth when we made ‘Goo’, where we worked with Nick Sansano who recorded ‘Daydream Nation’, before second-guessing ourselves because it was our major label debut and getting Ron Saint Germain in to do the mixes. The Babes got similar cold-feet, let me go before the final mixes.”

6: Sonic Youth appeared in the 1996 The Simpsons episode ‘Homerpalooza’. What do you steal from Peter Frampton’s cooler?

“Oh come on! I can do this one blindfolded! We stole his watermelon.”

CORRECT.

“There’s a famous picture of us – all equally tall even though Thurston should be twice our size! – holding the big slice of watermelon, and more people know Sonic Youth from Simpsons re-runs than anything else we’ve done.”

What are your memories of headlining Lollapalooza in ’95?

“It was the year that made Lollapalooza go belly-up (Laughs). The previous year, they had genuinely popular groups like Soundgarden and Pearl Jam. For our year, they went full-on indie like Beck in his earliest period and beautiful, shambolic Pavement. Ticket sales were down, and even though we played last, it seemed like Hole – who were on before us – had the greatest notoriety because it was the year after Kurt [Cobain] took his own life. Courtney Love was always a hot mess onstage – which was fun for everyone. Even though Sonic Youth felt we were at the height of our powers, the audience were exhausted after hearing Courtney ranting for an hour, so they were leaving during our set. But we made a lot of money from that tour – which we spent on a recording studio, setting us up for the next 15 years in terms of being able to make the records we wanted at our own pace.”

7: What did the stickers on the front of Sonic Youth’s 1987 ‘Master = Dik’ EP say?

“Was it some kind of self-deprecating thing like: ‘You will not like this record’? (Laughs)”

WRONG. They said: ‘Not as good as ‘Atomizer’, so don’t get your hopes up, cheese!’.

“Yeah – poking fun at the stickers Steve Albini put on Big Black’s ‘Headache’ EPs. That record has its detractors, and is Sonic Youth branching out into this crazy sound world territory, but that whole first side is like an extended tour diary for our life back at that moment, so I have a fondness for it. Paul Smith at Blast First begged us not to put it out, so that sticker was a nod to him.”

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8: Which Sonic Youth song did Beck pick as his favourite for your 2008 compilation album ‘Hits Are for Squares’?

“Would it be ‘Green Light’ – because I know he covered that song a year later as a split single where we covered ‘Pay No Mind’?”

WRONG. It was ‘Sugar Kane’.

“That would make sense for Beck – it’s a really poppy song in a way he’d probably like.”

Who was the most unusual person who said they liked Sonic Youth’s music?

“When we met Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra in the ‘90s, both said they really liked our music and listen to it. We didn’t know whether to believe it or not at the time – it felt too amazing to think that they’d come anywhere near to listening to our music. We’ve ended up having an ongoing relationship with Nancy Sinatra – she’s like your favourite aunt to hang out with.”

9: Which indie musician once said: “I don’t think music should be clever, or avant-garde, artistic. I hate art in music. all this pompous art rock like Sonic Youth and all that. Sticking guitars in dustbins and, you know, playing them with screwdrivers and that. I mean fuck art, let’s rock”?

“(Laughs) I remember that quote so clearly. Would it be one of the guys from Oasis? Noel?”

CORRECT.

“Oh God, that’s totally funny. We met those guys backstage once when we were on a bill together. I loved ‘(What’s the Story) Morning Glory?’ and my kids still sing ‘Wonderwall’ because it’s Man City’s song and that’s their football club. But I remember when they came backstage and Sonic Youth met them, we thought they were the biggest yobbos we’d ever met in our lives – they didn’t seem hip, cool or knowledgeable. They certainly didn’t know about art or avant-garde or anything like that! To us, they seemed like country bumpkins. They had a haughty attitude but they were nice enough. They wandered into our room curious to see these noise rockers people were talking about, hung about and there was no real chemistry, so they walked away pretty soon!”

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10: According to the title of a 2018 memoir by a DJ and author, whose floor did you once sleep on?

“I know the title of the book is Sonic Youth Slept On My Floor. And it was somebody from the Manchester scene, who had something to do with the Haçienda but I’m blanking on the name!”

WRONG. But close – it was Dave Haslam.

“That’s right!”

It’s the 30th anniversary of ‘Goo’ this year. Any special plans?

“We just started talking about it. It’s coming up in June, and we’d like do something. We already put out a deluxe version of that record, so I’m not exactly sure what we’re going to do.”

Any chance of reforming at any point?

“Your guess is as good as mine! I don’t think anybody’s thinking about it at the moment. Within a period of four months, Thurston, Kim and I are releasing new records and pushing into new directions. But I’d never say never. It was a special time. I’d hope if we got together, we’d have forgotten how to play the old songs and just say: ‘Fuck it, let’s make new music instead’. That would be my preference rather than just trying to re-learn how to play ‘Teen Age Riot’.

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The verdict: 4/10

“Not bad! I didn’t think I would get any of them!”

Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree’s album ‘Names Of North End Women’ is out 21 February.

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